Thanksgiving in the United States: a time for feasting, festivities and recently, football. Every year on the fourth Thursday of November, families and friends across the country gather in honor of this classic holiday.
The menu items tend to be unsurprising and boring in their predictability: turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce. Here in Minnesota, we like to toss in a few casseroles and maybe a ham! We like to change up the stuffing (or dressing?) game by making it with wild rice. And hey, why not some bars, and while you’re at it, put some marshmallows on top of your sweet potatoes! The menu can look quite different depending on what region you come from.
We’ve all more or less heard the same stories about it’s origins: pilgrims looking to escape the religious restrictions of England sailed across the ocean in the Mayflower, landed on Plymouth Rock and came across a group of Native Americans, the Wampanoags. The Wampanoags, assisted by Squanto as their translator, eventually taught the pilgrims how to grow corn and squash, and come harvest time they feasted together to give thanks to friendship and a plentiful harvest! How heart-warming.
The issue I find with this version is the lack of depth we attribute to this holiday. Firstly, it did not become a federal holiday until mid-Civil War in 1864, thanks to President Lincoln.
Secondly, the first “Thanksgiving” was a tentatively mutual celebration of skeptical alliance between the Wampanoag and pilgrims.
Thirdly, many Thanksgiving celebrations held subsequently tended to be in celebration of yet another Indian tribe being slaughtered in the name of civility by white European colonizers, and this took place many years prior to the formalization of the holiday.
While all of this definitely kills the holiday spirit we attribute to the beginning of November, they are facts. And they are only so upsetting because they completely challenge the group-think association we have with this holiday. If Thanksgiving is really the antithesis of it’s composite parts, what are we to make of other holidays? Great question.
This information engenders these kinds of questions, and they challenge us to think critically about our surroundings, and about the culture we are so willing to blindly accept. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not speaking from a soap box. I have participated in Thanksgiving celebrations with my family for the past 22 years, and I did so without really questioning the implications. It’s been a tradition, and it wasn’t news to me that the holiday could be problematic. But I blindly followed because that was what you did on the fourth Thursday of November. You gathered with family and feasted.
Now, because I have this information, I can make an informed decision on how I choose to proceed in years to come. Making ourselves privy to the realities of historic events is not raining on our parade or anyone else’s; on the contrary, we do ourselves a disservice when we do not inform one another of the realities of history.
The most upsetting portion of this situation is that I did not come across this information until quite recently. In compulsory education and even among family members, the history of Thanksgiving is depicted in a very pleasant light. I always remembered coloring in black and white cornucopias or decorating tongue depressors as turkeys that were also pilgrims. It was all very innocent. At family gatherings, we would write down all we were thankful for. That was always very humbling and reminded us how grateful we were to have one another.
I think if people want to gather and feast, all the power to them. Feasting amongst loved ones is an ancient tradition, and it’s a beautiful expression of human culture. But let’s stop the continuation of benefiting off of the pain and suffering of people of color in this country. Ever year at Plymouth Rock, there is a protest held in opposition to the national holiday of Thanksgiving. It is called the Day of Mourning, and many people chose to fast on that day in remembrance of the atrocities committed against the Wampanoags and many other Indigenous tribes. This year, I will opt-out of the Thanksgiving day feast. Just as we now have Indigenous People’s Day here in Minnesota, and in many other states, we should start reconsidering what Thanksgiving means and who really benefits from it.